Modern-day slavery in the Amazon

Leonardo Sakomoto tackles a topic close to his heart: modern-day slavery.

About 369,000 people are believed to modern slaves in Brazil - representing 1 in 555 of its population - according to the Global Slavery Index by human rights group Walk Free Foundation.
About 369,000 people are believed to modern slaves in Brazil - representing 1 in 555 of its population - according to the Global Slavery Index by human rights group Walk Free Foundation.
REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Peter was three years old when his mother gave him to a poor family in the Amazon. When I met him, in a raid to release enslaved workers, he was 14 and illiterate. He had to work to buy his own shoes, clothes and medicine – he’d already had dengue fever once and malaria five times. Like many boys in Brazil, he dreamed of being a soccer player. Instead he was a slave on a cattle ranch in the rainforest.

It is because of people like Peter that we, a group of investigative reporters, founded Repórter Brasil – an NGO with the mission to identify and publicize slave labour and other human rights violations. Through our work, we realized that contemporary slavery is a tool used by modern supply chains in the search for competitiveness: reducing costs and making people disposable.

Since 2003, we have tracked the supply chains of more than 1,700 farms, charcoal plants, sweatshops and construction sites from which the Brazilian government has rescued slaves.

Every year in my country, thousands of people are trafficked, subjected to inhumane working conditions and prevented from terminating their employment, under threats ranging from psychological torture to beatings and murder.

Slave labour is used systematically to deforest the Amazon in order to sell timber but also to create new farms and pastures. Products from slave labour are sold in the country and abroad. From 1995 to October 2019, over 54,000 people were rescued from modern slavery on cattle, soy, cotton, coffee, orange, potato and sugarcane farms; and from charcoal kilns, construction sites, sewing workshops and brothels in Brazil.

Brazil was one of the first countries to acknowledge the persistence of modern slavery. In 1995 it was the first to create an effective national policy to free workers from slavery. It was the first to launch an integrated plan to fight this crime in 2003 and to periodically publish a record of violators. It pioneered the creation of a multisector business pact against slavery in 2005.

However, in 2017, Brazil became the first country to be convicted by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for not acting on a case of slave labour. The Brazilian government was the first to use the courts to avoid publishing the register of violators, the so-called ‘dirty list’ of slave labour. And recently President Jair Bolsonaro criticized those fighting slave labour and publicly defended farmers caught with ‘irregularities’.

Rescuing workers from slavery is crucial, but it works as a medicine that lowers the temperature but does not cure the body. We need to attack the system that leads to the reproduction of slave labour. That requires ensuring access to employment, education, health, housing, food, culture, leisure, for the poorest population – who otherwise become easy prey for deceitful recruiters. But it also means punishing those who use this kind of exploitation by tracking value chains, both inside and outside the country, and turning their profits into losses. If that does not happen, the whole fight against slavery will be useless.

The challenge is not simple: contemporary slave labour is a global business worth at least $150 billion and affecting 40.3 million people annually, according to the UN.

I have never again been able to track down Peter, the 14-year-old slave. But I’ve met him in many other slave faces. Again and again. ●

Leonardo Sakamoto is a political scientist and journalist based in São Paulo. He is a campaigner with the investigative NGO Repórter Brasil, which he established in 2001.